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When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the release of the 15 captured British sailors and marines, he already knew that exactly four days later he would be celebrating Iran's "joining the nuclear club."
In the same way, his regime is closely monitoring and controlling the actions of Hizbullah in Lebanon; they were fully aware of Hassan Nasrallah's intention to publicly promise that the organization was defying UN Resolution 1701 and would continue arming itself for a future confrontation with Israel, while stepping up its campaign of undermining the Saniora government.
It is hard to glean any hard information from the announcement that Iran has begun enriching uranium with 3,000 centrifuges at the Natanz facility, as Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials were not forthcoming with details. But the latest development doesn't seem to have altered in any significant way the forecast of Israeli and Western intelligence agencies as to the future timetable of the nuclear program. The 3,000-centrifuge figure, if that is indeed authentic, is still a great deal short of the number of centrifuges necessary for enriching sufficient uranium for a single warhead. There is no indication that the "point of no return" for Iran's achieving military nuclear capability is any closer.
But Ahmadinejad has other intentions.
After proving that they can thumb their noses at the United States's major ally and abduct its soldiers at will, while continuing to supply and direct the terrorists attacking US and British forces in Iraq, the Iranians are now demonstrating that resolutions and sanctions at the UN aren't about to cow them or their Lebanese proxies into submission.
If they have indeed begun industrial-scale uranium enrichment, that will have also launched them on a collision course with the International Atomic Energy Agency. After giving the devotees of diplomacy some short-lived hope by releasing the sailors, Ahmadinejad is keeping the entire international community on its toes with these latest provocations. But above all his taunts are aimed at one specific address.
Ahmadinejad is simultaneously raising the stakes in all three arenas of concern to US President George W. Bush. By stepping up the nuclear program, keeping the lethal heat on American soldiers in Iraq and prolonging the threat of a coup d'etat against the US-backed Saniora in Lebanon, he is wagering that Bush, politically beleaguered in Washington, will prove incapable of responding to his challenges.
The US Navy might have carried out a major exercise in the Persian Gulf over the last few weeks, involving no less than two whole aircraft carrier groups, but Ahmadinejad is intent on showing up Bush as a paper tiger.
This is no simple wager for him to make. With the Iranian economy tottering and growing criticism within senior circles in Teheran of his diplomatic conduct, Ahmadinejad's grip on power is far from firm. But he is willing to bet that his rivals are in an even more precarious situation.
With British Prime Minister Tony Blair about to resign in a few months, Israel still licking its wounds from the summer's war in Lebanon and a hostile Congress trying to limit Bush's powers to use the military, Ahmadinejad is convinced that Bush is too isolated to order a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Ahmadinejad is still confident of continued backing from Russia and China to veto anything more than another round of ineffectual sanctions at the Security Council. No one in the international casino as yet seems prepared to call his bluff, and Ahmadinejad is playing to win on all the tables.
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